Stephen King’s latest novel “Joyland,” a book with a horror premise and an old-time, hard-boiled, dimestore-novel cover, has garnered rave reviews.
The novel was released on June 4 and follows Devin Jones, a 21-year-old suffering through a recent break-up who takes a job at a carnival for the summer and learns the story of a young woman who was murdered there, a mystery that was never solved.
At least, that's the plot summary circulated before the book’s publication. But reviewers say the book is much more the story of Devin growing up than it is a spooky tale.
Writer Niall Alexander, who reviewed the book for science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor’s website, declared that the book “is no horror novel, nor is the ‘hard-boiled crime fiction’ this imprint [Hard Case Crime] traffics in a particularly fitting description. What we have here is a coming of age tale, primarily; a beautiful book, warm and honest, about a boy becoming a man, and his tempered transformation really does pack a punch.”
Washington Post reviewer Bill Sheehan agreed that the emphasis is on how Devin changes.
“King has created a moving, immensely appealing coming-of-age tale that encompasses restless ghosts, serial murder, psychic phenomena and sexual initiation,” Sheehan wrote.
USA Today critic Brian Truitt said he valued the narrative of Devin growing up more than the ghost tale.
“It's the coming-of-age storytelling and a young man's roller-coaster of a summer that make Joyland a prize worth all your tokens and skeeball tickets,” he wrote of the novel.
As for the mystery itself, most critics agreed it serves its purpose, even though it’s not the center of the story. Reviewers stayed away from spoilers, but the resolution to how the young woman Linda Gray died at Joyland somehow involves a single mother and her son, who is in a wheelchair.
“The mystery isn't too mysterious,” Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich wrote. “The ghost hardly appears. Not that much happens, really.” However, Franich noted that the book “features some of King's most graceful writing.”
Alexander also felt that the mystery itself wasn’t overly important, writing of the narrative, “A murderer is unmasked come the climax, and there is, admittedly, a slight speculative edge to the entire affair.”
But Sheehan received the mystery parts of the story more positively, calling “the melodramatic aspects of the story ... great fun.”
Many reviewers noted that, like some of King’s other novels – such as “It” – "Joyland" includes as primary themes nostalgia and the way that the passing of time affects us all. Wall Street Journal reviewer Tom Nolan called the story “a tribute to older times and sounder values,” while Franich noted that King’s “most resonant subject might just be the simple, cruel passage of time.”
“Joyland is a relatively straightforward story of a young man's adventure, but it's written in the complicated voice of a much older man's memory,” Franich wrote. “Ruminative, amused, digressive, marvelously unaffected, and finally, devastatingly sad.”